The game: Barnet v. Woking.
The ground: The Hive.
The conditions: unforgettably chilling, like the thought of a world without quinoa.
Teeth chattering, knees knocking, I walked the wintry walk up Camrose Avenue and toward Barnet’s new home, The Hive. Despite my fondness for the Bees’ old Underhill Stadium – a ground I attended quite a few times, long before writing as The Luxury Fan – it was hard not to be impressed by the modern set up upon arrival; with a state-of-the-art bar, an immaculate pitch and – most importantly – a substantial, two-thousand-strong crowd, the whole place gave the impression of a club very much on the rise.
This is, of course, precisely what Barnet are. Saturday’s fixture saw the table-topping Bees take on promotion-chasing Woking in a critical Conference clash; with the home side looking to pull away from the chasing pack and the away ‘Cards’ looking to push for a play-off place, this was a high-stakes match at the summit of non-league football. The importance of a three-point haul was certainly not lost on either set of supporters; both vied vocally from the start. The latter even leapt about incessantly in pre-match expectation – or possibly just to stay warm.
On the field, things started at pace. Barnet’s John Akinde and Woking’s Scott Rendell – the two top scorers in the league – worked early openings, but couldn’t get shots away. In the seventh minute, Akinde then burst forward on the left wing, galloped into the opposition’s box and cut the ball back for the waiting Lee Cook, only for the Bees’ midfielder to slip before he could strike. Barnet’s passing was more assured than Woking’s and they started to influence the game accordingly, but the away side seemed in no way cowed by the league leaders’ confident play; readily attacking on the break, nippy midfielder Charles Banya was a particular nuisance to the home defence. In the fifteenth minute, it was his running that set Rendell up on the edge of the home box; from there, the Woking striker looped a shot just over Graham Stack’s crossbar.
This perhaps served as a warning against overconfidence for the Bees. They certainly started to work even harder from this point on, Akinde especially; with Barnet’s number nine winning every high ball, spreading play and continually working the left wing, his versatile talents were clear to see. In the twenty-first minute, he won a couple of corners in quick succession; pumped in by Cook, both bobbled perilously close to the away net before being desperately cleared. Then, in the twenty-sixth minute, Akinde and Cook made the crucial contributions of the match.
Having found himself in space out on the left, Cook slid a great ball through to Akinde, who had drifted cleverly across the Woking box; collecting the ball and turning to fire at static away keeper Jake Cole, he gave Cards’ defender Joe McNerney no choice but to attempt a last ditch tackle. Flattening Akinde without getting anything on the ball, McNerney didn’t argue with the resulting penalty call. He was rather more irate about the red card that the referee produced, as were the away fans behind the goal; this double punishment might have felt a little harsh but, then again, Akinde had definitely been denied a goalscoring opportunity.
With McNerney sent off, Akinde tucked the penalty away to Cole’s left. The Woking fans, though still happy to jump about, were all the more livid. This only spurred Barnet on; they proceeded to dominate the depleted Cards for the rest of the half. Akinde, Cole, midfielder Luisma and striker Charlie McDonald all went close one after another, last-gasp away defending the only thing keeping the score at one-nil. The best home chance then came in the forty-first minute, when Akinde won a free kick on the left; lashed into the Woking box by Cole, this was headed inches over by Bees’ centre back Jack Saville. The away side proceeded to hold out until half time.
Though the first half had left Barnet with a massive advantage, Woking’s sustained resistance suggested that the result was not as secure as it might have seemed. Unfortunately for the away side, they soon made resistance much harder for themselves. With Akinde and McDonald starting the second half well, both surging up the Woking flanks, the away defence must have felt the intense pressure; still, there was no excuse for them conceding their second. In the fiftieth minute, under mild harassment from Akinde, Cards’ defender Joey Jones horribly skewed his back pass to Jake Cole; this bobbled past the away keeper, onto the post, and in. As Jones dropped his head in horror, home fans and players celebrated with glee. Now, surely, the Bees had won it.
For the next half an hour, there was no real suggestion otherwise. As the Barnet fans sang their best promotion numbers – the Woking fans were still jumping, it should be said – the Bees buzzed ceaselessly around the away net. Cards’ midfielder Josh Payne had a vicious shot saved by Stack in the fifty-fourth minute, but apart from that the home side dominated; Akinde had a series of good chances, while Curtis Weston had two stinging drives palmed away by Cole in the seventy-first. Three minutes later, and the irrepressible Akinde should have made it three-nil. One on one with Cole after a defensive error in the Woking back line, he dragged the keeper wide of goal; having done the hard work, he then blasted his effort well over.
In the seventy-ninth minute, it suddenly appeared as if this miss might come back to haunt the home side. Sprinting from the middle of the pitch, Cards’ substitute Yemi Odubade squeezed between the Barnet centre backs before caning a shot past Stack; the Barnet keeper got a hand to it, but it was impossible to keep out. The ten men of Woking were rejuvenated, while the home side were rattled. A heroic Woking comeback felt possible.
For the last ten minutes, the away side turned the game on its head; frantically seeking an equaliser, they played at their maximum. In the eighty-first minute, Odubade fired low but wide from the edge of the box. In the eighty-second, Scott Rendell tangled with the generally faultless Andy Yiadom in the box, but no penalty was given; though dicey, this was probably the right call. Barnet manager Martin Allen brought on defender David Stephens in the eighty-ninth, and this did shore things up somewhat. Nevertheless, as their fans carried on bounding about, Woking mustered one last chance; from a corner, Josh Payne fired a gliding volley just a little too high.
Full time saw Barnet claim the win, though Woking had put up a valiant fight to the end. Another step on the long road to promotion for the Bees, and an encouraging late performance for the Cards; shivering madly now in the arctic evening air, I zipped my Barbour up to the top and headed home.
Result: Barnet 2 Woking 1.
My MoM: John Akinde. Pace, physicality and hard work; a bold individual showing.
Best fans: Woking’s Red & White Army. Bouncy. Angry. Bouncy.